The Best Falsetto Singers
The Best Falsetto Performances
A Brief History of the Falsetto
This is my personal "top ten" list of the greatest falsetto singers:
Brian and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys sweetly and
tremulously singing "Don’t Worry Baby," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows"
and "Surf's Up."
Robert Plant threatening to shatter glass on Led Zeppelin’s "Black Dog" and
Roy Orbison rending heartstrings with "Crying," "Leah" and "Blue
Russell Thompkins Jr. of the Stylistics being wonderfully stylish on songs like "Betcha By Golly Wow" and "You Make Me Feel Brand
#6) Steve Perry of Journey hiting interstellar high notes with laser-like
precision on "Wheel In The Sky,"
"Open Arms," "Faithfully" and "Good Morning Girl."
#5) Barry Gibb's breathy falsetto seducing our ears on "Words," "Run To Me," "How Deep Is Your
Love" and "To Love Somebody."
Robin Gibb's quavering falsetto outshining even his brother's on "I Started A Joke," "Message
To You" and the intro to "How Can
You Mend a Broken Heart."
Frankie Valli's powerful falsetto starring on mega-hits like "Sherry," "Dawn," "Rag Doll," "Walk Like A
Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Stay."
Lou Christie's falsetto rivals Valli's on songs
like "Lightning Strikes" and "Two Faces Have I."
#2) The Artist known as Prince hitting every note perfectly on songs like "Kiss" and "When Doves Cry."
#1) Little Richard teaching male singers it's cool to wear makeup, preen and emit
primal screams on songs like "Tutti-Frutti," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Rip
It Up," "Long Tall Sally" and "Lucille."
But there is one male vocalist who stands out above all the others, in my
opinion, and that is Elvis Presley. To understand why, I suggest going to
YouTube and listening to Elvis's 1954 Sun recording of "Blue Moon" and
his 1960 version of
"Fever." And be sure not to miss his rockabilly version of "Good
Rockin' Tonight." Then check out his tender, sweet version of "Crying in the Chapel."
Next, listen to the powerful high notes he hits on "American Trilogy,"
especially his version of "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Then listen to his
undervalued masterpiece "What Now My Love" and "It's Now or Never." The latter
is wonderfully sweet ... until the power of Elvis's voice kicks in and takes the
song to another dimension. Now listen to him growl out "One Night." Finish by
listening to his enchanting country-flavored "That's Alright (Mama)" and gospel
songs like "Peace in the Valley." Try as I may, I can't think of another male
singer who can go from nearly infinite sweetness, to ferocity, to
spirituality, to tremendous power the way Elvis does. Granted, at times
he could seem like a cheesy lounge act, but with the
right song in hand he was untouchable. I agree with George Barbel, who said:
When healthy and serious, he was flat-out the world's greatest singer. In his
voice, he possessed the most beautiful musical instrument, and the genius to
play that instrument perfectly; he could jump from octave to countless other
octaves with such agility without voice crack, simultaneously sing a duet with
his own overtones, rein in an always-lurking atomic explosion to so effortlessly
fondle, and release, the most delicate chimes of pathos. Yet, those who haven't
been open (or had the chance) to explore some of Presley's most brilliant
work―the almost esoteric ballads and semi-classical recordings―have cheated
themselves out of one of the most beautiful gifts to fall out of the sky in a
lifetime. Fortunately, this magnificent musical instrument reached its
perfection around 1960, the same time the recording industry finally achieved
sound reproduction rivaling that of today. So, it's never too late to explore
and cherish a well-preserved miracle, as a simple trip to the record store will
truly produce unparalleled chills and thrills, for the rest of your life; and
then you'll finally understand the best reason this guy never goes away.
Or as Robert Christgau said:
I know he invented rock and roll, in a manner of speaking, but ... that's not
why he's worshiped as a god today. He's worshiped as a god today because in
addition to inventing rock and roll he was the greatest ballad singer this side
of Frank Sinatra—because the spiritual translucence and reined-in gut sexuality
of his slow weeper and torchy pop blues still activate the hormones and slavish
devotion of millions of female human beings worldwide.
Or as William F. Buckley, Jr. put it:
Presley brought an excitement to singing, in part because rock and roll was
greeted as his invention, but for other reasons not so widely reflected on:
Elvis Presley had the most beautiful singing voice of any human being on earth.
Or as Deep Purple's lead singer and frontman, Ian Gillan, a damn good singer in
his own right, said:
Those early records at the Sun Records label are still incredible and the reason
is simple: he was the greatest singer that ever lived.
Elvis really was the King. If you want to have your breath absolutely taken
away, go back and listen to those early recordings of "Blue Moon" and "Fever."
They will send chills down your spine, and you'll know why Elvis was the King
and remains the King, not only of rock, but also of country and gospel.
But was Elvis the greatest male falsetto singer of all time? It's hard to say if
Elvis was really singing falsetto at times, because his voice was so wonderfully
high, pure, sweet and effortless. But does it really matter how he did what he did?
To understand and properly appreciate the genius of Elvis Presley, I recommend
the following songs: Blue Moon, Fever, Crying in the Chapel, American Trilogy,
One Night (with You), That's Alright (Mama), What Now My Love, It's Now or
Never, How Great Thou Art, Peace in the Valley, He Touched Me, Stand By Me, Love Me, You'll
Never Walk Alone, Thrill of Your Love, Jailhouse Rock, If I Can Dream, Bridge
Over Troubled Water, Unchained Melody, Suspicious Minds, In the Ghetto, Are You
Lonesome Tonight, Hurt, Kentucky Rain, Any Day Now, Don't Be Cruel, Surrender
by Michael R. Burch
You can find a more comprehensive list of the best falsetto singers at the
bottom of this page.
But what, exactly, are we talking about? Falsetto (meaning "false voice") was a term commonly used in
16th-century Italy to describe what one hears when a natural bass singer attempts to sing
soprano. The falsetto is an "inherently unnatural technique for men" that allows
them to sing above their normal range by stretching their vocal cords, perhaps
to the breaking point. Or, more accurately, the vocal cords are constricted in
movement rather than stretched.
This is my personal "top ten" list of the greatest falsetto performances:
Morton Harkett, the lead singer of the Norwegian band A-ha, is most famous for
his ethereal vocals on "Take On Me."
#9) Elvis Presley's falsetto is lovely, light and hauntingly touching in the
early Sun Records recording of "Blue Moon" and "Fever."
#8) Gene Chandler's tenor soars into a wordless but moving falsetto in "Duke of
Jeff Lynne of ELO dials in emotion on "Telephone Line."
#6) Aaron Neville sings "I Don't Know Much" with aching
#5) The Vogues make yodeling hip in "Five O'Clock World," a song that seems as
fresh today as when it first hit the charts in 1965.
#4) Freddy Mercury's falsetto soars to alien heights on "Bohemian Rhapsody,"
aided by the falsetto backing vocals of drummer Roger Taylor
#3) Jay Siegel of the Tokens provides the yodel-like falsetto lead on "The Lion
Lou Christie's electric "Lightning Strikes" is a falsettist cult
Prince's falsetto on "Kiss" is softer and more
subtle, but just as electric.
#1) Harry Nilsson's ethereal "Without You" is perhaps the greatest and most
touching male vocal performance ever.
The falsetto "is kind of like a high-wire act without a net," says Didi Stewart,
an associate professor of voice at Berkley, explaining that "there’s something
provocative and heart wrenching about that high male voice." Perhaps the
difficulty is part of the appeal, like scaling Mount Everest.
Okay, Make It A Top Twenty
Del Shannon belting out "Runaway."
Paul McCartney on (take your pick) "Hey Jude," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Twist and
Shout" and "Helter Skelter."
Michael Jackson's lovely "Butterflies" (and falsetto shrieks elsewhere
in his song catalog).
Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones on "Fool To Cry."
Adam Lambert, according to Queen's Brian May, is the only lead singer able to
match Freddy Mercury's highest notes.
Al Green was "born with heaven in his vocal cords; everything he has ever touched
has a miasma of glory and sweetness." For instance, the
1972 classic "Still In Love With You."
Jon Bon Jovi on "Runaway" and "Living On A Prayer."
Kevin Godley of Godley & Creme on "Cry."
Smokey Robinson of the Miracles sounded like an angel on "Tracks Of My Tears," "Ooh Baby Baby"
The boy soprano with his girlish voice tone is like the castrato: "hardly sexy
but certainly queer, between gender binaries." A man’s falsetto, however, is
that "clear feigned sound" which "reaches high into a woman’s soprano register
but is not womanly." According to Anwyn Crawford, " The falsetto is, by
definition, a false voice, touched with degeneracy, sparking anxiety and
ambivalence alongside intrigue and rapture. Where the boy soprano is charmingly
innocent, the male falsetto is transgressive. His voice can go to places that
his body cannot, or rather, his body produces a voice that makes 'his' a
How does it work? Here is what sounds like an expert opinion: "When you sing, your
entire vocal cord vibrates, with the elastic, fatty tissue of the vocal folds
closing and unclosing with each vibration, which produce a sustained note. But
when you're singing falsetto, only the edges of the vocal cord vibrate, and the
vocal folds don't close at all, so a note is only sounded for as long as the
singer is able to blast air from their lungs up through the folds. The
difference between a trained countertenor and a falsettist singing in this range
is that the countertenor can close and open his vocal folds with each
vibration cycle – effectively singing "naturally," rather than the idiosyncratic
straining of falsetto."
There is some debate as to whether women can sing in a falsetto voice, or need
to. Singers like Maria Carey can hit otherworldly high notes known as "whistle
tones." But for the purposes of this page, I am going to stick with male singers
who do what seems impossible.
A Brief History of the Falsetto in Modern Popular Music: Country, Blues,
Jazz, R&B, Doo-Wop, Folk, Pop and Rock
1927: Jimmy Rogers, who has been called "the father of country music," records
"Blue Yodel" and sells half a million copies. Rogers becomes an influence on
blues artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, John Hurt and Tommy Johnson.
Rogers also influences rockers Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Rogers is eventually
elected to both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame.
1927: Marion Williams, the great gospel singer, is born. Rolling Stone
called her "possibly the best singer ever." Little Richard credited her as the
source of his falsetto whoops and trills.
1928: Tommy Johnson, an influential Delta Blues guitar, records "Canned Heat
Blues," employing an eerie yodel-like falsetto reminiscent
1929: Cliff Edwards, a jazz scat singer, anticipates Tiny Tim by crooning
"Singing In The Rain" accompanied by his ukulele.
1930: Jimmy Rogers records "Blue Yodel #9" with Louis Armstrong.
1931: Skip James, another Delta Blues guitarist, records "Devil Got My Woman"
singing darkly in what has been called a "chilling falsetto." There
are rumors that he sold his soul to the Devil in order to obtain his musical
1934: Bill Kenny and the Ink Spots appear at the Apollo. Kenny was notable for
his "unusual high tenor ballad singing," a hallmark of falsetto singers to come.
1936: Blues legend Robert Johnson, also reputed to have sold his soul to the
Devil, records "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" replete with falsetto wailing.
1939: Billy Kenny and the Ink Spots record "If I Didn't Care," which sells over
19 million copies, becoming the 7th-best-selling single of all time.
1947: Maithe Marshall and the Ravens begin to record a new kind of R&B music
that becomes known as Doo-Wop; they are the first R&B group to choreograph
1948: Sonny Til and the Orioles are definitely ahead of their time with "It's
Too Soon To Know."
1949: Jackie Wilson drops out of high school at age 15, takes up boxing, then
gives it up for music. The rest, as they say, is history ...
1950: Clyde McPhatter joins Billy Ward and the Dominoes, the most popular and
successful of the early R&B groups.
1951: Pete Seeger engages in falsetto yodeling on "Wimoweh" (which later
becomes "The Lion
Sleeps Tonight" with the addition of English lyrics).
1952: The Four Freshman begin to record songs like "Angel Eyes" featuring Bob
Flanigan's falsetto, which Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys emulates after making "solitary
pilgrimages" to watch them perform.
1953: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons begin to record falsetto affairs, many
of which become chart-toppers.
1953: The Orioles have a much-covered hit with their lovely "Crying In The
Chapel." Elvis eventually covers the song.
1950: Jackie Wilson replaces Clyde McPhatter as lead singer of the Dominoes.
Wilson would be called "the black Elvis" and "Mr. Excitement."
1953: Clyde McPhatter and his new group, the Drifters, hit the charts for the first time with "The Way I Feel."
1954: Elvis Presley's first single is an up-tempo version of the Chicago Blues
classic "That's All Right." (Rolling Stone magazine called it the first
rock-n-roll record.) The flip side is the country classic "Blue Moon of
Kentucky." Presley is called "the freshest, newest voice in country music" and
one of the "slickest" country singers to come along in some time. Little did
they know what The Pelvis was up to ...
1954: Elvis Presley records "Blue Moon" in an eerie, haunting falsetto. This
is not "Blue Moon of Kentucky," but the song that begins: "Blue moon, I saw you
standing alone ..."
1955: Little Richard begins to record; his is no angelic falsetto, but it
certainly packs sex appeal.
1955: Jimmy Jones and the Sparks of Rhythm predict that "Star Are In The Sky."
1955: Vernon Staley and the Mello-Harps record "Love Is A Vow."
1955: Elvis's first number one hit is on the Country charts: "I Forgot To
Remember To Forget."
1955: Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel" is number one on the Pop, Country and R&B charts.
1956: Elvis Presley's appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show is the most-watched TV
show in history. Rock has arrived, and its King is ripped and risqué.
1958: The Bee Gees begin to record in their trademark falsetto.
1958: Smokey Robinson and the Miracles also begin to record.
1958: Herb Jenning of the Ladders threatens to shatter glass on "I Want To Know"
and "My Love Is Gone."
1958: The Capris record "There's A Moon Out Tonight."
1960: Elvis Presley records "Crying In The Chapel." Jimmy Jones hits
the ultra-high notes on "Handyman" and "Good Timin'."
1961: Jay Siegel's falsetto lead soars in the still-unique "The Lion Sleeps
Tonight" by the Tokens.
1961: The Beach Boys begin to record, featuring Brian Wilson's falsetto
patterned after Bob Flanigan's of the Four Freshmen.
1961: Del Shannon's "Runaway" is a falsetto classic.
1962: Lou Christie begins to record; he has a powerful falsetto to rival Frankie
1962: Little Richard teaches Paul McCartney his signature falsetto "Wooo"
in Hamburg, Germany. In an interview, Little Richard explains that he had "gotten
the inspiration for that 'Wooo' from gospel singer Marion Williams." Later that
same year the Beatles open for Little Richard in England.
1962: The first Beatles single, released in Germany, is a version of "My
Bonnie [Lies Over The Ocean]" that opens sounding a ballad, then proceeds to Wooo's, yelps and primal falsetto screams.
1964: The Beatles arrive in the U.S. and Americans get to hear those Wooo's and
screams in songs like "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "Twist and
Shout." The higher the Fab Four's voices soar, the more the girls scream back in
delight. And the rest, as they say, is history ...
A More Comprehensive List of Great Falsetto Singers
Prince "Kiss," "When You Were Mine," "Adore," "Breakdown," "Black
Jimmy Jones (Sparks of Rhythm, The Savoys) "Handyman," "Stars are in the Sky,"
"Say You're Mine," "I Told You So," "Good Timin'"
Jackie Wilson "Danny Boy," "Lonely Teardrops," "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me)
Higher and Higher"
Robin Gibb (Bee Gees) "I Started A Joke," "Massachusetts," "Message To You,"
"How Can You Mend a Broken Heart"
Barry Gibb (Bee Gees) "Nights On Broadway," "Stayin' Alive," "Night Fever," "Jive Talkin'"
Maurice Gibb (Bee Gees) "Closer Than Close," "Man In The Middle," "Walking On
Andy Gibb "I Just Want to Be Your Everything," "(Love Is) Thicker Than Water,"
Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) "Don’t Worry Baby," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Surf's Up"
Carl Wilson (Beach Boys) "God Only Knows," "Surf's Up"
Frankie Valli (Four Seasons): "Sherry," "Dawn," "Stay," "Rag Doll," "Walk Like A
Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry"
Lou Christie "Lightning Strikes," "Two Faces Have I," "The
Roy Orbison (the operatic "Caruso of Rock") singing "Crying," "Leah," "Blue Angel,"
"Only the Lonely," "Running Scared," "It's Over," "Blue Bayou," "Danny Boy"
Elvis Presley had a three-octave range from bass to high tenor, abetted by a
lilting falsetto on "Blue Moon," "Unchained Melody," "Surrender," "Danny Boy,"
"Spanish Eyes," "Mystery Train," "What Now My Love"
Aaron Neville "I Don't Know Much," "Tell It Like It Is," "Everybody Plays The
Jeff Buckley "Grace," "Corpus Christi Carol," "Last Goodbye"
Russell Thompkins Jr. (the Stylistics) "Betcha By Golly Wow," "You Make Me Feel
Billy Kenny (the Ink Spots) "If I Didn't Care" (recorded in 1939, it sold over
19 million copies, becoming the 7th-best-selling single of all time)
Pete Seeger (the Weavers) "Wimoweh" aka "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Smokey Robinson (the Miracles): "Tracks Of My Tears," "Ooh Baby Baby," "Cruisin'"
Jay Siegel (the Tokens) "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Solomon Linda and The Evening Birds "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"
Del Shannon "Runaway," "Little Town Flirt," "I Go to Pieces," "Handyman," "Hats
Off to Larry," "Hey Little Girl"
Robert John "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," "Sad Eyes," "Hey There Lonely Girl,"
Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) "Black Dog," "Stairway to Heaven" and "Immigrant
Eddie Kendricks (the Temptations) "Get Ready," "Just My Imagination"
Clyde McPhatter (the Drifters) "A Lover's Question," "Money Honey,"
"The Way I Feel," and a doo-wop version of "White Christmas"
Phillip Bailey (Earth, Wind & Fire)
Curtis Mayfield (the Impressions) "People Get Ready," "Pusherman,"
Elton John "Tiny Dancer," "Levon," "Crocodile Rock," "Bennie and the Jets,"
Sam Smith "Stay with Me," "(I Know) I'm Not the Only One," "Lay Me Down," "How
Will I Know," "Latch"
Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) "Stacks," "For Emma, Forever Ago," "Towers," "Skinny
Will Hart (the Delfonics) "La-La Means I Love You"
Harry Ray (the Moments aka Ray, Goodman & Brown)
Gene Chandler "Duke Of Earl"
Matthew Bellamy, the lead singer of Muse, has been known to hit crazy notes like
A2, A4 and A5
Axl Rose, the lead singer for Gun 'n' Roses, is said to be able to sing anywhere
from bass to high soprano
Chris Isaak "Wicked Game," "Cheater's Town"
Marvin Gaye "What's Goin' On"
Al Green "Still In Love With You"
Paul McCartney "Hey Jude," "Helter Skelter," "Twist and Shout" primal scream
John Lennon "In My Life," "Twist and Shout," "Mother," "Money," "Don't Let Me
Mick Jagger (Rolling Stones) "Fool To Cry," "Emotional Rescue"
Michael Jackson "Butterflies," "Earth Song," "Man In The Mirror," "Dirty Diana,"
"Smooth Criminal," "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough"
Adam Levine, the lead singer of Maroon 5 and a coach/judge on The Voice,
is noted for his high falsetto
Justin Timberlake (N'Synch and solo), on songs like "Cry Me a River" and "My
Eddie Holman "Hey There Lonely Girl"
Neil Young "Heart of Gold," "After the Gold Rush," "Old Man"
Little Anthony (the Imperials) "Tears on My Pillow"
Slim Whitman singing "Danny Boy" and yodeling on "Blue Bayou," "Cattle Call" and
"Indian Love Call"
Emanuel "E.J." Johnson (Enchantment)
Matt Bellamy (Muse)
J. Marvin Brown (the Softones) "Hey There Lonely Girl"
Thom Yorke (Radiohead) "Idioteque," "Paranoid Android"
Wayne Coyne (Flaming Lips)
Chris Martin (Coldplay)
Ce-Lo Green "Crazy"
Don McLean "Crying"
Phil Wickham "Spirit Of The Living God," "Hallelujah"
Jackson Browne "Stay"
"Taxi" male soprano with Harry Chapin's band
Larry Henley "I'd Be A-Lyin'"
Little Jimmy Scott "Day By Day"
Todd Rudgren "Hello It's Me"
Scissor Sisters "I Don’t Feel Like Dancing"
Ted "Wizzard" Mills (Blue Magic)
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"
Jonsi Birgisson (Sigur Ros)
Richard Jose (in those days, known as a counter-tenor)
Joe Feeney (the Irish tenor on the Lawrence Welk show) "Danny Boy," "My Wild
How Good Was Elvis Presley, Really?
Pretty damn good! Dave De Sylvia reviewing 'The Sun Sessions', and Elvis' vocal
abilities, for SPUTNIK Music, on June 1, 2006 said: Elvis' lowest effective note
was a low-G, as heard on 'He'll Have To Go' (1976); on 'King Creole' (1958), he
growls some low-F's; going up, his highest full-voiced notes were the high-B's
in 'Surrender' (1961) and 'Merry Christmas Baby' (1971), the high-G at the end
of 'My Way' (1976 live version), and the high-A of 'An American Trilogy' (1972);
using falsetto, Elvis could reach at least a high-E, e.g, as in 'Unchained
Melody' (1977), so, it was very nearly a three-octave range, although more
What made Elvis such a great vocalist, in my opinion, was the fact that he could
sing softly and sweetly ("Crying in the Chapel"), in a rich baritone (many of
his best songs), with tremendous power ("Battle Hymn of the Republic"), and in
an eerie, haunting falsetto ("Blue Moon"). Prince and Michael Jackson were
great singers, but they never sang with the power of Elvis's "Battle
Hymn" or "How Great Thou Art" or "You'll Never Walk Alone." Axl Rose is a great
singer, but he never sang as sweetly as Elvis's "Crying in the Chapel." It's
hard to think of another male vocalist who could match Elvis's versatility from
low and rich to high and sweet, from delicate sweetness to stirring power.
True Falsetto Facts
On January 12, 1939, The Ink Spots entered Decca studios to record a ballad
written by a young songwriter named Jack Lawrence. This ballad, "If I Didn't
Care", was to be one of their biggest hits, selling over 19 million copies and
becoming the 7th-best-selling single of all time.
The Tokens were formed in the middle 1950s by Neil Sedaka, when he and Siegel
were students at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn; Sedaka later went
solo. Siegel reminisces about how "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" — which utilizes a South
African chant ("wimoweh, wimoweh") — came about.
"I was in high school," Siegel recalls. "I must have been about 16 years old. I
was a big fan of folk music. I was listening to the radio one day, and I heard
this great piece of music by the Weavers at Carnegie Hall with Pete Seger. They
were singing this song called 'Wimoweh.' I loved it. The whole lead vocal was
done in falsetto. I just loved the melody, the whole idea of it. And I realized
that I was able to sing that falsetto."
Siegel mastered the Weavers' song and taught it to the Tokens, "just for fun."
Flash-forward to 1961, when the Tokens were looking for a follow-up to their hit
"Tonight I Fell in Love."
"We were singing for our producers at RCA Victor," Siegel recalls.
"We said, 'Oh, let's sing this song for them and see what they think.' I did the
'wimoweh' — it had no lyric or anything — and they thought it had some
commercial potential if there were a lyric written to it."
Siegel says he then did some research on "wimoweh" (which is traditionally
spelled "mbube.") His findings: "This is what they used to chant when they went
on a lion hunt. The basic meaning of the song is that when they went on the lion
hunt, if everyone was very, very quiet, the lion would sleep and they'd be able
to make their kill. And then everyone would have lion meat in the village for
the next three months. That's the story of what it really meant. So our
producers at RCA wrote a lyric to it."
Siegel says he rewrote "about eight bars" to fit the melody.
Not everyone saw the commercial potential of the finished song.
"Three guys of the four guys in the group said, no, they didn't even want it to
be released," Siegel says with a laugh.
"They thought it was too weird for the time. There was nothing like it. But I
thought it had a shot. In just four weeks, it became a No. 1 record in the
As for Siegel's high-pitched vocal solo on the song: "I don't speak falsetto,
but I sing that way."
"Wimoweh" evolved from an African tune "Mbube," recorded by migrant worker
Solomon Linda in the 1930s. When Siegel and the others pitched the song to RCA
Records, they put lyricist George Weiss to work revising and adding lyrics.
Weiss also wrote hits like "It's a Wonderful World," for Louis Armstrong and "I
Can't Help Falling in Love with You," for Elvis. When Weiss was done, Siegel
reworked the melody to fit the lyrics and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" was released
on Oct. 16, 1961, just five days before Siegel married the girl he met when both
attended New York City Community College.
He studied retail distribution, he says, figuring he'd end up working in
Manhattan's Garment District. "Who thought you could make a living in music?" he
says, still sounding surprised he actually did. He and Judy moved to Rockland in
1971 and raised three children -- Jared, Stacy and Jamie.
Two months after its release, on Dec. 17, "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" topped the
chart and started on a half-century success path. There's the gold record,
emblematic of a million records sold, on the Siegels' living room wall. There
have been 300 or more cover versions by other artists, Siegel says, and when the
National Endowment for the Arts and the Recording Industry Association of
America named the Top 365 Songs of the Century, the Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps
Tonight" came in at 159. The song is featured in "The Lion King," and there's an
animated version on YouTube that's gotten more than 21 million views. It was
even part of a PBS documentary, tracing the history from Solomon Linda to the
Siegel and the group have been inducted into the Doo-Wopp Hall of Fame of
America, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, in 2004, and the Long Island
Music Hall of Fame, in 2007. There were more hits for the Tokens -- "I Hear
Trumpets Blow" and "Portrait of My Love," among others. Siegel says they were
one of the first "self-contained vocal groups," in that they wrote, sang, played
and even produced their own work. They did all that for others, too, in the
1960s and '70s. "When we weren't in the studio making records," Siegel says, "we
were producing for others," including Tony Orlando and Dawn ("Tie a Yellow
Ribbon," ''Candida," ''Knock Three Times") and the Chiffons ("He's So Fine").